Monsoon of Memories: Salt, Sunlight and Spices
The joy of terrace-top production of mango achaar.
The cotton bedsheet fluttered as the breeze blew. It was held on the ground with four pebbles placed at the four corners. It was that time of the year…as soon as the sun came out each morning for the next few weeks, granny got into action, leading a culinary operation. I was her trusted deputy. I was also the one who made sure the birds minded their business and didn’t come close to the sheets.
As I got on with my part of the operation, granny began to spread finely cut pieces of potatoes on the sheet. They were delicate and could get stuck to one another, so only she was authorized to handle the pieces to avoid overlapping.
Once dried, we would have bags full of potato chips, on which granny would sprinkle just a little masala for that extra touch. Next to the chips were placed a few rather large glass mason jars filled with raw cut mango pieces, mustard oil and a dash of spices. Granny, with clean and dry hands, added a pinch of red chilli powder to the pieces and mixed the pieces until they were all coated. By the time granny and I were done with the task, the whiff of pungent mustard, chilli, freshly cut fruits, the dash of mint spread from our terrace to the entire neighborhood announcing that the season of homemade goodness had arrived. And just like that our secret was out!
To date, the blend of these aromas takes me back to those winter days when everything was homemade and delectable—from sun-dried potato chips to sweet-sour mango chutneys, tangy lemon pickles to mint- coriander chutney. You may ask any Indian what makes a meal complete, and they’ll agree that it is these trimmings. I still consume an array of chutneys and pickles with my meals. However, today, most of these come out of store-bought bottles. At home, a shelf is dedicated to these jars, boxes and bottles which bear brand names reminding one of the recipes passed over from generations—names like “Granny’s Love” and “Mum’s Warmth”—but they lack the magic of the salt, sunlight and spices of the days gone by.
As I consume a piece with a fresh parantha or a poori, I miss the tradition. I miss the routine activity that was a labor of love. I wish to relive the times when weeks were spent in the preparation of this bountiful goodness; and how all of us children were asked to stay patient until the mason jars were ready to be opened. How we took turns to play scarecrows! And how we tried to get away from a scolding when the telltale turmeric stain on the shirt showed up as a result of us devouring pickles with paranthas. How no bags of chips purchased from the market ever matched up to the fistful of chips that granny gave us to reward us for our patience and assistance.
On some days, I get into action. I flip through diaries of family recipes and take instructions from my mum over the phone.
Often, I close my eyes and for a moment, hit rewind. I do a good job, sometimes, of filling up tiny glass bottles with homemade concoctions of spices, oils and flavors. I relish a few pieces of nimbu achaar with a poori or spread a layer of aam ki chutney on a piece of bread, but still the taste, the aroma doesn’t match up to the blends from my growing up years. Even as I fail to replicate the magic, I draw comfort from the attempt and smile to myself.
Purva Grover is an author, journalist, poet, playwright and stage director. A postgraduate in mass communication and literature, she is the founder-editor of The Indian Trumpet, a digital magazine for Indian expats in the UAE. She can be reached at email@example.com. To comment on this article, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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